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ADAM DYLAN LEON, Man Who Stole Plane Has No "Known Association With Terrorism": FBI

JIM SALTER   04/ 8/09 12:34 AM ET   AP

Stolen Airplane

ST. LOUIS — Suicide by fighter jet was the goal of a flight student who stole a plane in Canada, entered U.S. airspace and flew an erratic path over the Midwest with the military on his tail before he landed safely on a rural Missouri road, federal authorities said Tuesday.

Adam Dylan Leon, who was running out of fuel when he landed the plane Monday night in Ellsinore, Mo., was charged Tuesday with transportation of stolen property and illegal entry. The seven-hour flight prompted a brief evacuation of the Wisconsin Capitol and warnings to commercial aircraft over Chicago and other cities, but terrorism is not believed to be a motive.

According to the federal complaint, Leon told the FBI that he flew the plane into the U.S. expecting to be shot down by military aircraft. The complaint said Leon also told the FBI he "has not felt like himself lately" and he recently was being treated by a psychiatrist.

Leon was jailed in St. Louis and does not yet have an attorney. A federal detention hearing is set for Friday.

A background check of Leon, 31, of Thunder Bay, Ontario, showed no connection to terrorism, FBI agent John Gillies said.

Carl Rusnok, a spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Leon was born in Turkey with the name Yavuz Berke, moved to Canada and became a naturalized citizen last year.

He would face up to 10 years in prison if convicted and would serve any sentence in the U.S. before being deported, U.S. Attorney Catherine Hanaway said.

The plane was reported stolen Monday afternoon from Confederation College Flight School at Thunder Bay International Airport in Ontario. The college said in a statement that the flight was unauthorized but that Leon was enrolled in its program.

The plane was intercepted by F-16 fighters from the Wisconsin National Guard after crossing into the state near the Michigan state line.

The pilot flew erratically and didn't communicate with the fighter pilots, said Mike Kucharek, spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

The pilot acknowledged seeing the F-16s but didn't obey their nonverbal commands to follow them, Kucharek said in a telephone interview from Colorado Springs, Colo.

The plane's path over Wisconsin prompted a brief, precautionary evacuation of the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison, although there were few workers in the building at the time and the governor was not in town. The plane also flew over Chicago, Springfield, Ill., and St. Louis, prompting authorities to warn commercial aircraft in the area.

The Cessna 172 continued south over Illinois and eastern Missouri before landing near Ellsinore, about 120 miles south-southwest of St. Louis.

"We tailed it all the way," Maj. Brian Martin said. "Once it landed our aircraft returned to base."

The Missouri State Highway Patrol trooper who made the arrest said Leon was almost out of fuel when he picked his landing spot, a hilltop on a former stretch of U.S. 60 that is now just a paved loop off the main highway.

"How he avoided the power lines is anyone's guess," Trooper Justin Watson told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Tuesday night. "He stated that he didn't want to land on the four-lane highway because he was surprised about the amount of traffic on the road for no more populated than it was."

From there, Leon apparently hitched a ride to a small convenience store near Ellsinore. Watson said he was surprised at Leon's response when he approached him in the store to arrest him.

"His statement was," Watson recalled, "he was expecting us and he was the person we were looking for.

"I expected him to deny any involvement."

During the approximately 30-mile drive to troop headquarters, Leon volunteered that he had flown into the United States because he thought he would be shot down, Watson said.

"Basically, his statement was he wanted to end it all," Watson said.

But Leon was smiling by the time he was arrested and seemed relieved that he was alive, Watson said.

"He was actually in a little better spirits than I thought he would be for a person who was suicidal," Watson said. "He seemed to want to talk and for people to know why he had done what he had done."

He also was hungry. Troopers ordered pizza for him after he said he had gone 24 hours without eating, Watson said.

Marilyn Simmons, owner of the convenience store, worried about terrorism when a relative called to tell her about the plane.

"My husband went and got his guns and gave me one," Simmons said.

She then called the store and told workers to watch out. Sure enough, Leon showed up after a young man who stopped to offer help gave him a ride.

"He gave him $2 and dropped him off," Simmons said. "He asked for the bathroom, then got a Gatorade and sat down at the table. He was there when they came and got him. He was smiling when he went out."

Confederation College said Leon had access to Cessna training planes and security at the facility was not compromised. It said Leon was readmitted to the program in the fall after failing in 2007, and that he passed his cross-country solo flying test last week.

Fellow students were shocked and surprised, said Patricia Lang, president of the college.

"His faculty speak very highly of him," she said. "Everyone likes him. He was a very good student. He was very engaged in class. He asked great questions so he was an all-around good student."

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AP writers Robert Imrie in Wausau, Wis., Todd Richmond in Madison, Wis., James Carlson in Milwaukee, Betsy Taylor in St. Louis, Cheryl Wittenauer in Ellsinore, Mo., Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Mo., and Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.

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Filed by Katharine Zaleski  |